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Forced to Choose: Places to Watch

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Traverse County - The least populated of Minnesota's 87 counties, this is perhaps Exhibit A when policy makers talk about eliminating some county boundary lines in the name of efficiency. On the other hand, it also has been an innovator in forming relationships with nearby governments to deliver health and social services, provide veterans services and perform other functions residents want without losing the sense of identity county government offers.

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Foley - City leaders in 2011 stirred the law enforcement pot when they decided to save money by hiring a private security company instead of contracting with the Benton County sheriff for protection. The decision opened a debate about how much law enforcement a community needs. It signaled that local officials who long kept the budget-cutting knives away from public safety were finding they had to reconsider that approach.

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Nowthen - In a debate that echoed the conversation in Foley, residents here wrestled loudly in fall 2011 over whether to raise property taxes or reduce the level of law enforcement provided by the Anoka County sheriff. After going back and forth several times, the city council at the end of December decided to take an offer from the sheriff that let them maintain most existing services. Rather than raise the levy, which many residents opposed, the city found money to pay for policing in the existing budget, at least for the near term.

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Lake Elmo - Dissatisfied with a Washington County decision to close the branch library in this city east of St. Paul, residents joined in creating an independent city library by means of donations and volunteer help.

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Lanesboro - Starting Jan. 1, 2012, anyone who buys something in this southeastern Minnesota city that is a substantial tourist draw will contribute to the city's infrastructure by virtue of a local sales tax. The city is one of the latest examples of how Minnesota lawmakers seem more willing to let municipalities levy their own sales taxes even as aid from the state has shrunk.

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Austin - With a city budget under $20 million and state aid contributions at more than $7 million, this southern Minnesota city of 24,000 residents is among the biggest outstate recipients of Local Government Aid. (St. Cloud, Hibbing and Winona are others.) As the Legislature continues to scrutinize how much sales and income tax money should be spread among local governments, the ways in which cities like Austin prepare for and deal with changes will become an important focus.

Claremont - Across the state, cities are stuck with unfinished housing projects, empty industrial parks and infrastructure expansions that once looked promising but now feel burdensome. Claremont, a tiny city between Owatonna and Rochester, is one of those. Thinking it had found a way to draw in new families, the city decided in 2006 to partner with a developer to build a 15-home subdivision. Five years later, the development is largely empty. The developer has walked away, leaving the city to try to salvage the project and pay off a $450,000 bond. Given limited staffing and resources, Mayor Ginny Busch doesn't relish the added responsibility of running a housing project. "We don't want to be in the housing business," she said. "But we are forced to be."

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Hutchinson -- Much like Claremont, the city is searching for ways to make a couple of infrastructure projects more viable -- in this case, a new water plant and an expanded wastewater treatment plant. Rather than further raising user fees to cover its bond payments of around $3 million per year, the city went to the Legislature last session and won approval for a 0.5 percent sales tax to help out, a tactic more cities are considering these days since it spreads the cost around. "A lot of people come to the community to shop or work," Mayor Steve Cook said. "It's a regional center."

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